On May 2, George Paras, a custom home builder and property owner, submitted a piece of routine paperwork to the Spokane County Building and Planning Department.
It was a plat reapplication for about 85 acres of land between Spokane and Spokane Valley just north of Camp Sekani.
But that application, as routine as it may be, highlighted a fundamental issue.
About 90 percent of the Beacon Hill mountain biking trail system is on private land and exists at the whim of the landowners. What’s more, throughout Spokane County there are numerous parcels of private lands that have long been used in a public manner through ad hoc agreements.
And with a robust economy and a tight housing market, those parcels are looking more desirable to developers.
“When there is a demand for buildable lots and the financing is available, these properties get snapped up a lot more quickly and at a higher price,” said Paul Knowles, Spokane County park planner. “Whereas back during the recession we didn’t see a lot of large properties move. I think about the Beacon Hill case. George Paras is just responding to the market that’s out there. He owns a piece of property that sits in the urban growth area and there is a need for buildable lots in the county and he’s serving that need.”
Paras, for his part, said he’s trying to be “the good guy.” He’s open to selling his land to the county through the Conservation Futures Program. And he’s allowed mountain biking access even though he has no obligation to do so. But at the end of the day, he said the land is his.
“I’m not going to give it away. That’s not going to happen,” Paras said.
The issue isn’t confined to Beacon Hill. Less than 10 percent of Spokane County is public land. That’s a significantly lower percentage than other counties. For example, King County is 51 percent public land. Yakima County, which has about half the population Spokane County does, is 36 percent public land. In fact, among Washington’s 10 most populous counties, Spokane has the smallest percentage of public land.
At the same time, home builders and developers in Spokane are searching for new building sites. According to a June 7 Journal of Business article, there is a shortage of buildable lots. That makes properties like Paras’ all the more appealing.
“The issue remains and the issue is not going away,” said Nate Hutchens, president of Evergreen East Mountain Bike Alliance.
The land north of Camp Sekani had already been platted, a process in which land is broken into smaller units for development. Paras had forgotten to extend the plat application and it had lapsed. He described it as forgetting “to fill up your gas tank.”
Paras has no immediate plans to develop the property, saying any development is “several years away.” But he emphasizes that that could change depending on the market, his business and other factors.
The property was nominated for Conservation Futures and was ranked No. 4 on the 2016 acquisition list. The county acquires properties in order of their ranking. The county hasn’t acquired the Paras property yet, and may not depending on funding, Knowles said.
“If a reasonable thing can be worked out, that could happen,” Paras said of the Conservation Futures acquisition.
But that property isn’t the only area in the county that’s privately owned and has long been associated with public recreation.
Other examples: Tuscan Ridge, the Trolley Trail between South Milton Street and South Assembly Road, and the trails on the left bank of the Spokane River between People’s Park and Riverside State Park.
All of those areas, Knowles said, could be threatened by development.
“Oh yeah, that’s an issue statewide for outdoor recreation,” said Jon Snyder, outdoor recreation and economic development adviser for Gov. Jay Inslee. “And it’s not just mountain biking. It’s everything from hunting to golf.”
King County, the state’s most populous and fastest-growing county, is hoping to buy roughly 65,000 acres of land over the next 30 years as part of the Conservation Futures program.
That sort of long-range, aggressive land acquisition will be necessary in Spokane County, Snyder predicts. That’s not how it used to be.
Snyder remembers growing up in Spokane in the ’70s and ’80s during a time when “nobody knew who owned the land.”
“We had more land than we thought we knew what to do with,” he said.
That’s changing. With climate change impacting Washington less than other areas of the country, Snyder sees only more people moving here.
“Spokane is just a beautiful place and more and more people want to live there,” Snyder said. “If you don’t preserve access to that kind of recreation, that part of what makes Spokane such a great place to live will diminish.”
The Conservation Futures Program is attempting to do just that. But what the program can do during any given acquisition cycle is limited. The program is funded by a 4.67-cent tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value in Spokane County. Roughly $1.5 million in annual tax revenues is accrued for acquisitions.
For example: In 2010, 36 properties were proposed with only seven being acquired.
Knowles said the acquistion and rating process does not consider whether a property faces development.
“I know in the past we’ve had property owners who have wanted to sell through conservation futures and speed up that process by saying, ‘You know I’m going to be developing this property soon,’ ” Knowles said.
But Knowles said the county doesn’t factor that in to its decision.
“It’s just one of the realities of conserving land,” he said. “The opportunity might be short-lived. And sometimes we’re lucky and we might be able to act on it and other times we don’t have time on our side.”
While the trails north of Camp Sekani may not be in imminent danger of closure or development it’s almost certain that Paras and other Beacon Hill-area landowners will develop that area – unless it’s purchased by the county, the city of some other public agency.
“If nothing happens, if the city or the county or Conservation Futures is unable to purchase or acquire these lands, it’s only a matter of time,” Hutchens said. “That hasn’t changed. That’s how it’s always been.
“We are operating on borrowed time. But this is the reality of Beacon.”
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